Slow Death in Siberia

Russia is the third biggest exporter of coal. It has vast reserves in the Kuzbass in southern Siberia which nestles roughly north of Mongolia and Kazakhstan. 76 per cent of Russia’s coal exports come from this region, tying people from across the world to this remote, forested area. Local people are not prepared to sit and watch the mines expand across their territory, they have started to organise.

At the end of 2017 researchers from forestry and forest people’s organisation Fern and London Mining Network member group Coal Action Network travelled deep into Siberia to the Kuzbass, Russia’s main mining region for export.

Fern and Coal Action Network have just released Slow Death in Siberia, a report looking at how Europe’s coal dependency is devastating Russia’s forests and the indigenous Shor people.

One of the people they met was Alexander Myzhakov who used to work in the Mezhdurechensk opencast coal mine. He lives in Chuvashka in the house he shared with his wife who died recently. Like him, she was Shor.

“As a child I lived in Kurya with my grandmother. There was no work in our village, but that didn’t matter as we could live off the land. We tended the garden and grew potatoes and vegetables.

My grandmother knew a lot about herbs for health. When I was a child I didn’t listen to her, now I would love to know the entire process like she did. Finding the plant, preparing it, knowing how much to take when, these are the things she knew and I don’t.

When Kurya was destroyed to make way for the Sibirginsky opencast coal mine my family moved to Chuvashka [less than 4km away].”

Chuvashka

According to the Siberian Customs Administration, in 2016 the four biggest importers of Kuzbass coal were South Korea, Japan, the United Kingdom and Turkey, with other European Union countries featuring prominently: the Netherlands (6th biggest importer), Germany (7th), Latvia (10th), Poland (12th), France (13th), Spain (17th), Finland (18th), Italy (19th), Denmark (20th), Slovakia (21st) and Belgium (22nd). The German coal importer association, Verein der Kohlenimporteure, also confirms in its Annual Report that in 2016 Russia exported 11 Mt to the UK and 17.8 Mt to Germany.

Alexander continues his story: “In the 1990s there was a lot of unemployment as all the factories started closing. Eventually I found work in the Mezhdurechensk opencast coal mine. I had to work there even though opencast coal mining destroyed the village where I first lived.

When the wind blows after an explosion you can see the pollution in the atmosphere. The explosions, the pollution and the chemicals are damaging us. It concentrates in our organs, you can’t see all the toxins, only the dust. My kitchen is cracking [because of the explosions]. There was a long crack down the stove which I use to heat the house and to cook on.

Last year a family in the village got sick from drinking the river water. The Mras-Su River is completely black, and cultivation is very difficult.”

Before the coal mining came the region where Alexander lives was once covered by taiga. The taiga is a low density forest populated with cedar trees, birches, Siberian pines and larches. Wolverines, foxes, lynx, sable, brown bears, red deer and roe deer all run wild showing the territory’s biological diversity. The Southern Kuzbass had been blessed with wetlands, streams and wide slow-moving rivers.

The researchers co-ordinated with Russian environmental group, Ecodefense. According to them, for each tonne of coal produced, six hectares of land are disturbed.

“The mines have brought deforestation. All the forests have been cut down.

Animals can leave, but people can’t. I don’t know what will happen to this village. The coal company tell us nothing. They just pay the administration for our land. This is supposed to be the Shor nation’s land.

The Shor traditions are lost as the old people die. The young people don’t care about them. In the mountains there are ruins of other villages which have been abandoned.

A long time ago there were traditional Shor storytellers. The whole village would gather on winter evenings when there was no work. The storytellers would wear traditional clothes and the stories might last a week.

The storytellers spoke of people living from the land, beneath the sky. Whether the stories were myths, legends, real or imagined nobody knows.

People tried to write it down but it was an oral tradition. The old people died and the knowledge was lost.

When I was younger I used to play the Shor lute and also the guitar. I can’t play either now, my hands are too stiff.

Historically there were blacksmiths amongst the Shors. Then it was forbidden on punishment of death. The minerals are all still here, but no-one does it any more. The people near here supplied the arms to Genghis Khan, my grandfather used to talk of it. The Shors had their own traditional ways to work the metal but the knowledge is long forgotten.”

The people of the Kuzbass are not taking this all lying down. They organise and have started to network between opencast-affected communities.

Alexander describes how people near him have tried to improve the situation, “There have been initiatives against the mines. We tried to defend Kazas, but the houses people refused to sell were burnt down, although the culprit was never found. We contacted the company’s owners, but they didn’t listen. We went to the judiciary and to Putin. Putin says that it is a regional issue and so it should be solved here.”

The predominantly Shor village of Kazas was destroyed in 2013. There has been no reprieve for the people of Chuvashka, only a couple of kilometres away. However, last month there was a significant improvement for the people of Mencherep. Planning permission had been given and land owners were ordered to cede their land to the mine owners, then local people, Ecodefense and lawyers Team 29 managed to stop the opencast through the courts.

Living in a village surrounded by mines and having the experiences Alexander does makes fighting difficult. He continues, “I hope that the mining will stop, but hope eventually dies. I don’t really believe it will stop as the oligarchs know there is still money to be made. It’s easier money than opening a factory.

To the people who ultimately consume the electricity produced I’d say use alternative energy sources and modern technology. I understand that energy is needed but there must be other ways than by opencast coal mining. Coal may be needed but the costs of exploiting it are too high and it is destroying people’s means of subsistence.

If the mining companies would listen I would tell them that the mines need to be closed down.”

Research by the Coal Action Network shows that Aberthaw power station has started burning almost exclusively Russian coal, as burning Welsh coal breaks European Union air quality standards. Drax, the UK’s biggest power station and largest UK consumer of coal and Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station also use Russian coal, most likely from the Kuzbass.

“The owners of the companies need to stop chasing the rouble and protect nature and people, not destroy it all by taking the resources. There is no deficit of coal, but there is a huge deficit of untouched nature, ecology and clean water.”

While Governments promise to phase-out coal in forthcoming years the future for Chuvashka is bleak. Through inaction the UK Government is allowing nearly eight more years of this destruction.

Action needs to be taken to close coal power stations, reduce energy consumption, protect forests from destruction for coal and instate human rights for the Shor and other marginalised groups.

Alexander concludes, “We could all move out of Chuvashka and leave it to them. But this is my land and I was born in it. There is a licence for a mine here in the village and how long we can stay is all about timing. Our village can all be demolished in a day, when they decide to exploit the coal under it. I don’t know when this will happen.

This feels hard, but what use are feelings? What can I do with those?”

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